Easter 7: Why Are You Staring Up At Heaven?

Scripture can be found here...

Imagine with me, living in the days when Jesus lived, and moved, and had his being firmly planted in the world, and also, turned it upside down. But imagine you are not one of the followers of Jesus, but, instead a friend of theirs. A relative. You’re the mother of Matthew the tax collector. You’re the son of Simon Peter. You’re a neighbor of Mary Magdalene. You’re a cousin of James the lesser.

And one day, you are cleaning your nets, or kneading dough to bake bread, or standing deliberating at the gates of the city, or waiting by the well for your turn to draw water, and your loved one comes rushing up to you.

“We saw Jesus again today! And this time, we saw him lifted up into the sky! Yes, I know I’ve told you he was raised from the dead, and he’s been around for more than a month, but now he’s gone again… he just rose into heaven, in a cloud, and then he was gone.”

And what do you think you would have said to this loved one of yours? Would you have accepted what he said at face value? Would you have wondered whether your friend had, maybe, had a hallucination? Maybe she was possessed by a demon. Maybe she was getting sick.

I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to put ourselves in the position of friends or family of the disciples, because… that’s what we are. We are those who get to hear the story, but who don’t get a front-row seat to all the action. And I think this, like the resurrection, is a story that is one of the more difficult ones to wrap our heads around. What happened, exactly?

If we take the stories of this resurrection season and boil them down to their essence, what we have is this: This is the story of a community that formed around Jesus, and they have been through a devastating loss, followed by inexplicable restoration and hope, followed again by another terrible loss.

Look at the conversation Jesus’ friends are having with him immediately before he is taken out of their sight. They are wondering whether now’s the moment when Jesus will finally initiate a coup, and at last be installed as king. And when, in the end, they are left staring up at heaven… well, I can’t help feeling for them. The whole thing’s like a bad case of whiplash. Jesus is gone. Again. And despite the fact that he has given them a good idea of what to expect, they still have no idea what’s next.

In our own ways, we’ve all been there. When the one we loved has left us. When the one we loved has died. When we have faced a difficult and frightening diagnosis. When we have faced it again. When we were left, staring up at an empty sky and wondering, now what?

There’s a wonderful song by the band Jars of Clay that captures this moment exactly. It’s called “Silence.”

I thought you left me for the wreckage and the waste.

On an empty beach of faith. Was it true?

… I want you to hear me, I want you to find me.

I want to believe but all I pray is wrong and all I claim is gone.

I, I got a question, I got a question

Where are you?

Where are you?

When Jesus’ loved ones are left staring up at the sky, I believe this is their internal cry: Where are you? I don’t want to minimize this moment. I don’t want to belittle what they thought or felt, to say, “Silly disciples, why didn’t they get it?” because I think we’ve all been confronted with what feels like the absence and silence of God.

What next?

If Jesus’ loved ones have been listening carefully to him… which, let’s be fair, it’s hard to do in the best of times, when fear grips our hearts… but if they’ve been listening, they’ve heard a promise. A promise of presence. And we have one view of what that presence can look like, if we just look at the bookends of our own service today.

At the beginning we had a baptism—welcome and washing, healing and hope, baptism is belonging.

And at the end is will be communion—bread, blessed and broken; cup, blessed and poured; all of it shared in a profound sign of oneness. Togetherness. Not-aloneness.

The bookends of this day tell us: We are not alone.

Jesus may be gone from our sight, but he has given us work to do—and in that work we both find our welcome and offer it to others.

Jesus may have been taken up into heaven, but the gifts he has left us remind us that it’s his plan that we make heaven, in the immortal words of the Bangles, a place on earth.

Jesus apparent physical absence from this world may have left us feeling that we were alone on an “empty beach of faith,” but his will and his prayer are that we be one. Together. Welcoming. Caring for one another. From the moment of our first cry to the moment when the evening gently closes in. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.